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Is History of Art a Feminist Subject?

Updated: Jan 8


Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes (section) (1611–1612). Picture credit: La Stampa.


Mary Beard is a long-time and long-feminist Professor of Classics at Cambridge University. Yesterday I watched her lecture on her most recent work ‘Women & Power’, in Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre. It is always a pleasure to come into contact with her, her countering of sexist abuse with sharp academic grace makes me strive for the same level of dignity.

Beard’s relatively recent fame (in the scheme of the Ancient History that she studies) has brought to light her work moving Classics away from the Eton set and bringing it into the contemporary public consciousness, notably the contemporary female public consciousness. It’s been half a lifetime’s work, but Beard has turned Classics into a female subject. Or at least, a non-gendered one. And it is her who got me pondering my title question- is History of Art a feminist subject?

As I listened to Beard speak, I thought about History of Art. I thought how in all of the years I have wrestled with my chosen subject, have struggled professionally and even more so when that door’s been kicked shut, in all of these years, I have barely considered gender.

I studied History of Art with Classics at the University of Glasgow. My Classics class was overpoweringly male, my History of Art- well, there were two male students in the entire year. But, and as we roll our sticks on that worn out drum, I’ll repeat that well-spoken fact- the majority of top art jobs are occupied by men. The top three museums in the world, the British Museum, Louvre, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art have never had female directors. And the women who are in directorial positions in museums with budgets over $15 million still lag well behind men, holding thirty per cent of art museum director positions. Women are severely under-represented in leadership roles in the arts and are still over-represented as object handlers (read ‘objects’) in top auction houses.


Picture credit: Art History News.


Look at that! She can’t be holding it- have you any idea how heavy those frames are? So what on earth is she doing there? On a positive note, last year both Sotheby’s and Christie’s say they’ve dropped the use of only female staff to pose in these promotional photoshoots. And they also blame the photographers and the bidders who request these photos for the whole history of this sexist behaviour. Basically, anyone but themselves. Grow up.

And here’s something else. For some years, in my many moments of self-doubt, I have pondered the imminent death of academic Art History, that is, any art historical discovery that can be made through scholarship and academic research. It’s taken about six hundred years (thanks for kicking things off Petrarch), but now it’s pretty much finished, so it’s no wonder we’re left with the dregs. The re-translations of translations, the pointless academic arguments just to get the last word in. Now, we’ve got science, science making the really important discoveries about art, right down to pigment level. Sentences are dead. Moreover, just to push this point, who have the scientists been? Well historically, of course, they’ve been men. We’re catching up but fuck me it’s a long walk. Men seem to always be one step ahead of us, hell, a mile of steps ahead of us in our subject.

So, is History of Art a feminist subject? It doesn’t even feel like a worthwhile question, we’ve won Art History, girls. Not in my lifetime, as in Beard’s, have we even ever had to fight for it. Am I crazy to wonder if there is a link between the growing number of women in the History of Art, to its lessening importance as a subject? (I mean to speak in terms of this blog and its lack of readership- or in fact much of the History of Art offerings on Medium-it really seems that nobody gives a damn anymore!) Here we are safe in our masses to read Linda Nochlin’s ‘Why are there No Great Women Artists’ (again and again and again) or discuss the solid female bodies, simmering with their sex, in the works of Artemisia Gentileschi. And this, in essence, is the problem. The men have left it to us. They have left us with Art History (old school Art History) and fucked off out of the lecture theatre with all of the jobs.

But they’ve left that door wide open, and we’re on our way.

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